WASHINGTON – The Senate on Thursday approved a long-debated measure that would expand the federal hate-crime law to cover violence against gays and, in an unusual gambit to make it difficult for President Bush to carry out his veto threat, attached it to a defense bill.
Supporters of the hate-crime legislation mustered the minimum 60 votes they needed to overcome a threatened filibuster. The House approved the bill earlier this year as a stand-alone measure, but neither chamber appears to have the votes to override a veto.
“We have never had this bill with the potential to go as far as it is,” said Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., one of the chief sponsors, who pleaded for the president to sign it as a “legacy that he can claim on an important civil-rights issue.”
Smith stood on the Senate floor next to a photo of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was brutally beaten in Wyoming in 1998 and left to die tied to a fence. The bill is named for Shepard. “What happened to Matthew should happen to no one,” Smith said.
The legislation – the first major expansion of the hate-crime statute passed in 1968 – would expand the law to cover acts of violence motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation, gender, disability or gender identity. Existing federal law defines hate crimes as those motivated by bias based on religion, race, national origin or color.
The measure, which was drawn up also in response to the 1999 shooting attack by a white supremacist on a Jewish community center in the Los Angeles area, would give federal authorities more leeway to assist state and local law enforcement in investigating and prosecuting hate crimes.
Passage of the bill caps a nearly decade-long struggle. The House and Senate previously have approved hate-crime measures, but – with Republicans controlling Congress – those never reached the president’s desk. Smith, who has championed the measure with Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., has entered a hate crime into the Senate record almost every day for the past seven years.
The bill’s supporters said they hoped the hate-crime legislation would be included in a final defense bill that must be pieced together to settle House-Senate differences. Kennedy noted that no president ever had vetoed a defense authorization bill. “We’re very hopeful that the president will sign it,” he said.
The White House offered no sign that the president would back down from his veto threat. “We believe that state and local law-enforcement agencies are effectively using their laws to the full extent that they can” to cover hate crimes, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said .